Childcare crisis in Lebanon area: One center is closing, others struggle to keep staff

Lebanon County has a competitive hiring market with more jobs than there are people to fill them.

The childcare sector has been hit especially hard by this worker shortage, creating a cycle in which parents who could be in the workforce aren't able to find accessible or affordable childcare.

In a survey conducted in February by Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA, which received a response from nine early childhood care and education facilities in the county, 100% indicated that they suffered from staffing shortages.

At the time of the survey, 1,391 children were currently on waiting lists, 22 classrooms were closed and the programs reported that an additional 298 children could be taken in if they were fully staffed.

Dawn Clark has owned and operated Sonshine Child Care Center Inc. for 26 years. In August, she will be closing down the facility permanently.

Sonshine Child Care Inc. will permanently close at the end of August.
Sonshine Child Care Inc. will permanently close at the end of August.

Clark said she was struggling to find qualified workers even before the pandemic, but she has really struggled over the last few years.

She remembered that she used to have waitlists in some of her rooms because there wasn't any room, but because she can't keep a full staff, she has a waiting list because she isn't able to keep rooms staffed.

Even when she does find people to hire her turnover rate is now higher than it was before the pandemic, and she attributes at least some of that to the fact that people can go work many other places for higher wages and less responsibility.

"Childcare is very stressful, you're dealing with kids and families, you get lots," she said. "So I think that it's just too easy to go make more money with less responsibility."

To be allowed alone in a room with children, a staff member is required to have a high shchool diploma or GED and at least 2,500 hours or two years of childcare experience, making an already tight labor pool even tighter for childcare facilities desperately looking to hire.

Previously, she was able to hire college students and recent grads focused in education to work for her with relative ease, but with a competitive labor market and low rates of new educators, that has become harder to do.

Out of the 40 or so students currently enrolled in the program, many parents have found luck in getting them into other programs, often farther away and more expensive, while some children will be moving into kindergarten in the fall. Others, Clark said, have had to change their work schedule or leave the workforce entirely in order to take care of their child at home.

Clark said that just three of her current 10 employees might be considering looking for jobs in childcare after the closure. The rest will be leaving the field entirely.

She said that other childcare facilities have reached out to her asking if anyone would be looking for work, but she wasn't able to help them. She's worried that with childcare worker numbers dwindling, the childcare profession is in danger.

"Basically we're all having the same issues," she said. "Being able to pay staff what they deserve to be paid, but just even acquiring the staff period, because of a limited number of people available with the qualifications that they need to have."

Solutions proposed

Childcare employment and access to childcare are two things that cause concern for the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce as well.

In late May, the chamber signed on to a letter, along more than 50 other chambers across the commonwealth, urging legislators to consider solutions to the childcare crisis.

The letter asks legislators to consider four solutions:

  • Offer tax credits for employers who furnish employee childcare or tax credits and cost splitting for employers who offer to fund childcare expenses for their employees.

  • Childcare tax credits for families, which would expand the Child and Dependent Care Enhancement Program to allow more middle-income families to qualify for tax credits on childcare.

  • Retention and recruitment legislation that would create hiring incentives and rebates for childcare workers as a first step to address ongoing issues of low wages.

  • Changes in regulatory reform, which would ensure that input from childcare providers would be considered in any further regulatory proposals as well as ensure that any changes do not lead to increased costs for providers.

In order to qualify as a staff member able to work in a room alone with children, hundreds of hours of training are required for average wages of around $12.50 an hour in Pennsylvania and $14 an hour in Lebanon County.

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"When you think that you can work at so many different places, for $17, $18, $19 an hour, without credentials, and without having to, you know, get on the floor and change diapers and the other things that go along with working at a childcare center," said LVCC President Karen Groh. "How are we attracting employees to these kinds of really important jobs?"

Groh said that affordable access to child care, along with access to transportation, housing and skills, are some of the largest barriers to enter the workforce.

"To keep our local economy going, we have to be able to provide support services for those basic needs when we are asking these individuals to go back to work," she said.

Daniel Larlham Jr. is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at or on Twitter @djlarlham

This article originally appeared on Lebanon Daily News: Lebanon childcare facility to close after 26 years